Staff satisfaction has real
impact on the bottom line and with the latest advances in methods, surveys have
seen something of a renaissance. By Veronica Simpson
Employee surveys are far from the newest
tool with which a company assesses staff satisfaction. Historically wheeled out
by large organisations once a year, the staff survey was used as more of a PR
exercise, an end in itself. But recent improvements in the design and analysis
of these surveys has generated a huge boom in their usage – and their
Most people credit the US retail
giant Sears with its renaissance. Around five years ago, a survey of the
company’s staff and customers was published, which showed that there was a very
significant link between staff satisfaction and customer satisfaction – and
therefore the bottom line.
Suddenly all US companies of a
certain size and ambition were paying extra close attention to their staff’s
well-being, and cross-referencing their survey data. This linking of one
element of company performance with another to draw meaningful conclusions, has
generated a major refinement of the survey process – its design, motivation and
It has also created a powerful
boardroom weapon for HR departments. As Stephen Harding, managing director of
International Survey Research (ISR), says, "It’s a very important way of
demonstrating the value of HR. A week’s training course for staff can be seen
to have a direct impact on how customers feel about staying with a bank, for
Andy Brown, associate director of
Mori Human Resource Research, the largest independent research agency in the
UK, has seen tremendous growth in this category in the last three years. He
says, "It’s not just the volume of companies that are doing it that’s
growing, the quality of the research is light years ahead of where it was 10
years ago, when companies might do an annual employee survey and nothing else.
"There is an increasing amount
of specialised research. A lot of them are now doing employee surveys alongside
communications audits, culture and value surveys, or training and development
Retail and finance businesses are
particularly benefiting from this new generation of analysis. ISR works with
most of the UK’s retail banks, including Lloyds, Barclays and the National
Westminster. Their employee surveys are now being linked in with individual
branch performance data to see how staff satisfaction is impacting on customer
retention and financial performance.
In addition, Harding says,
"Surveys are now linked much more thoughtfully to what the business is
trying to achieve and other measures of success, such as customer satisfaction,
measures of quality, financial indicators. When it comes to action plans, they
are very much more thought through and business consequences are thought
through right from the start." Nokia, for example, builds its surveys
around the company’s five core values.
With the growing body of survey
data, it is also possible for companies to make comparisons in their own sector
or on a national basis.
"If we do a survey for Shell
or General Motors in France then we will compare the results with French
national norms, based on surveys we have carried out there over the last two or
three decades," says Harding. "There are quite strong cultural
factors that should be taken into account when looking at your results. The
Swiss, for example, are generally happiest at their jobs. Italians less so."
Within sectors, says Harding,
"if we look at Bank X we can say, ‘Here’s how you compared to other banks
in the UK financial sector’. And then they can start targeting areas in which
they are underperforming. If you haven’t got these kinds of benchmarks there’s
a danger of charging off to address what are seen as negatives, when,
relatively speaking, they are not unusual for that country or sector."
But while benchmarking is clearly
the new religion for professional survey firms, it is rarely possible to
compare like with like – each survey for every client will be slightly
different, based on the unique culture and goals of that organisation, or the
original purpose of the survey.
This is where research agency
Millward Brown thinks it is on to a winner with its new approach to measuring
employee satisfaction, called "Employee Dynamics". Account manager
Martin Attwood says, "The value of good employee relationships lies in the
degree of commitment and enthusiasm that employees show for their work.
"We have done a great deal of
work looking at brand communication, and what makes consumers more loyal to
certain brands. We used that model to look at what makes employees loyal, and
came up with a pyramid structure which, at the one end, has staff who are not
coping with their job right up to those who are totally bonded with their job
and their company. It provides simple boardroom metrics that you could use to
show how happy your staff are.
"We deliberately designed it
as a coherent framework that works across companies, continents and
The benefits are obvious, says
Attwood. "You can compare staff satisfaction between departments, and
track attitudes consistently over the years, to see how changes you have made
have impacted on loyalty."
In addition, retail customers can
carry out one survey on employees and another on customers, to see how loyalty
in one area is impacting on loyalty in the other.
But this model is in its infancy.
Millward Brown has tested the system extensively on its own staff, and is
running a major study in the UK. It has not yet taken it into the commercial
New technology is another area rich
in potential for employee surveys – especially for companies with a wide
geographical spread. At Getty Images, a company with 2,600 employees spread across
20 different countries, putting out its recent survey on the Internet made a
lot of logistical sense – it maximised contributions from all international
offices, for the minimum of HR time and effort.
The response rate was an impressive
80 per cent of the survey group (about 2,000 employees). Ralph Tribe,
vice-president of HR, explains, "We held the survey open for three weeks
to maximise the response. But whereas with a traditional survey you might get a
flurry of responses initially and then nothing, with the Internet you can very
quickly assess initial response, and then fire off e-mails to generate more.
Doing this throughout the whole three-week period meant our response rates were
way above average."
Consultancy Towers Perrin, which
handled the technological side of the exercise, claims 55 per cent was a more
typical response rate.
Much of the above work, it has to
be said, is restricted to the minority of companies with a large enough
workforce, and bank balance, to both justify and warrant such appliance of
science – although the growing presence of intranet systems is of value to all.
For many small to medium firms in
this country, surveying is often a much more seat-of-the-pants affair. And many
of them are happy with it as such.
Helen Tiffany, group training and
development manager at magazine company Haymarket Publishing, is reaping the
benefits from a staff survey and about 100 Investors In People employee
interviews, conducted over the past 18 months.
As the director of a fairly new HR
department in a rapidly expanding company, Tiffany felt that it was important
to get feedback from staff about their satisfaction with their jobs, their
career opportunities within the company and their perception of training and
She joined the company two years previously when all Haymarket had in
the way of HR was two part-time employees devoted to training. She says,
"The biggest thing that came out of the research is that people felt there
was nowhere to go with personnel or career issues."
Although she had been working hard
to bring the company up to scratch on appraisals, job descriptions and
substantially boosting in-house training, a lot of the work has not been
"Since the surveys we have improved
internal communications via intranet and Haymarket bulletins," she
explains. "The HR function is much more recognised now. People know that I
will provide legal counsel, advice and attempt to empower managers to deal with
"As a response to issues
raised in the interviews and survey, we have also dramatically improved working
conditions in some areas – new desks, new PCs and software. It’s been a very
useful exercise and something we will do annually."
Having worked as an HR consultant
for several years, Tiffany had no qualms about drawing up her own
"I took a lot of information
from exit interviews, especially for the problem areas that needed addressing.
As for the style of questions, I made sure there was a reasonable mixture of
narrative questions with quantitative data next to them.
"Everything was completely
anonymous. The data processing was done internally and the information then was
seen by only two or three people within the company, including myself."
Tiffany is clear that surveys and
feedback are part of the ongoing evolution of company culture. Having fed back
the actions leading from the initial surveys to staff, she regularly attends
the various departmental councils, forums and workshops to pick up on personnel
issues, which will be fed back to the boards, with ensuing actions communicated
to staff through the intranet and bulletins.
Not all firms follow through quite
so thoroughly. According to Andy Brown at Mori, despite the advances in survey
design and analysis, many companies are still prey to the following pitfalls:
doing a survey and not doing anything with the results, or doing a survey and
doing something with the results, but not telling anyone about it.
Brown says, "That’s such a
vital part of the psychological link with the employee, in saying that time you
took to complete the survey was well spent."
He continues, "If the chief
executive backs the whole idea you get high response levels, greater
accountability among line managers and the greater likelihood of action at the
Value added analysis
"We are trying to do more
value added analysis – we don’t only tell them how they are doing, but which
items are important in driving outcomes like motivation and commitment. It may
be that the lowest scoring is not the most important."
If you have paid a consultancy to
handle your survey, the chances are the best of them will build in models for
handling the issues raised in analysis.
ISR’s Harding says, "When we
talk to companies about a survey, we are discussing how they are going to roll
this out with line managers and how line managers are going to communicate the
results before we even draw up the questionnaire. We have focus groups on
action planning. When the results are in, there are data decision workshops in
various layers of the organisation."
Brown stresses the importance of
tracking results and feeding back actions. "At the BBC, we have been doing
research with staff about communications. They have been exemplary in tracking
the results, and taking actions where needed.
"Because we have tracked data
for three or four years, we have seen marked rises in how well they are doing
in terms of how good they feel about internal communications," he says.
Ultimately, the better the
surveying and action initiatives are communicated to the workforce at large,
the better it is for the HR department and staff motivation.
Other tools for
Surveys are certainly the most
comprehensive way of taking a sounding of staff attitudes. But the roles of
other forms of inter-staff communication are equally important.
Exit interviews, for one, can be a
good source of information on which to base your surveys, highlighting problem
areas of pay, management or working conditions – people are usually much more
frank in their opinions if they are about to leave your employ (as long as it
doesn’t jeopardise their references).
In devising surveys and
implementing and communicating action taken on the back of them, forums and councils
are also invaluable. Low-cost airline EasyJet conducts regular culture surveys
to ensure that the working practice and experience reflects the ideals set out
in the company business plan. These surveys are the responsibility of the
"culture committee", a body of individuals drawn from all aspects of
the company, who meet every month to discuss issues and action arising from the
last survey, and focus on the direction of the next.
At Southend Hospital (see the case
study at https://www.personneltoday.com/features),
the employee questionnaire was devised by a working group drawn from all areas
of the hospital, and all levels. The momentum generated by these groups’
involvement in company policy can be harnessed and nurtured by the HR division,
to spread a feeling of inclusion in key decisions throughout the staff base.
Regular staff forums also provide an opportunity for the HR manager to show
their face, and keep the profile of HR high within an organisation.
There are also occasions where
questionnaires would be too bland and clumsy a measure. ISR’s Stephen Harding
says, "For example, we have been working with an FMCG company that merged.
The hardest thing for it to achieve is integration of the soft stuff – culture,
HR policy and people feeling they are part of a new organisation. Going
straight into a questionnaire in that environment is too sensitive, too raw.
What we do at this stage is focus groups and interviews at various locations.
We were able to pull out some really important themes that were really
bothering these people and causing them to leave. And a year later, we have
come back and done a questionnaire-based survey.
"The questionnaire bit is only
the sandwich filling between to qualitative processes – designing the survey to
suit the client’s requirements, and analysing the results at the end. When it
comes to thinking it through into actions then you need real live people round
that table to say what can be done."